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Recreational marijuana bill heads to House floor

Charles MegginsonGovernment, Headlines

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The bill to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana in Delaware moved to the House floor Thursday after earning a stamp of approval from four members of the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill was “walked through” the committee, meaning the majority of the committee’s members “signed the backer,” a document that releases the bill for further consideration without the need to actually convene a meeting.

State Reps. Bill Carson, D-Smyrna, David Bentz, D-Christiana, Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington East, and Kimberly Williams, D-Marshallton, all signed the backer. 

Neither Republican on the committee — Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, or Rep. Kevin Hensley, R-Odessa — signed the backer. 

House Bill 350 is a reworked version of a previous attempt at marijuana legalization that would have required a ¾ vote of both the Senate and the House.

By changing some of the previous bill’s financial imperatives, the new version will only require a ⅗ majority – which Democrats alone have.

Walking the bill through the House Appropriations Committee wasn’t necessarily a political move designed to speed up approval without public input.

Both Democrats and Republicans say the move wasn’t out of the ordinary because money for the last attempt has already been included in the current budget, and that’s the only reason for it to go through the Appropriations Committee.

What they don’t agree on is whether it was the best way to move forward, given the controversial nature of the bill.

The role of the Appropriations Committee is to ensure any bill that includes a fiscal note — meaning it will cost the state money — is budgeted before being passed into law. 

Drew Volturo, communications director for the House Democratic Caucus, explained that by rule, any bill with a fiscal note above a certain amount is automatically assigned to Appropriations after it has been released from the initial committee.” 

“In this case, HB 305 had a full public hearing with public testimony in the House Health & Human Development Committee, which considered the bill on its merits and released it,” Volturo said.  

“The funds for HB 150 (HB 305’s predecessor) already were allocated in the current operating budget,” he said. “The committee in the past has simply signed bills that are budgeted like this out of committee.”

Joe Fulgham, communications director for the House Republican Caucus, said that while the act of walking bills through Appropriations isn’t unusual, “doing this for House Bill 305 was perhaps not the wisest course of action.”

“The bill is obviously highly controversial and a topic of interest to hundreds of thousands of Delawareans,” he said. “The action taken by the four Democrats on the committee … quietly positions the legislation for possible immediate action in the House Chamber when lawmakers return to work next month.”

Fulgham said “that is a development about which the public should have been informed.”

The bill will now head to the House floor for consideration. 

In order to decrease the number of votes required for the bill to pass, Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Brookside, removed a proposal for a social equity loan fund.

The social equity loan fund would have directly paid for loans and grants for prospective marijuana growers and sellers who have, in the past, been negatively affected by the disproportionate prosecution of cannabis-related crimes. 

That component of the bill was designed to redress what many in the legislature — and their constituents — view as historical wrongs in the area of criminal justice.

But because it would have directed public funds to businesses, the Delaware Constitution would have required it to receive 75 percent of the legislature’s approval. 

In House Bill 350, a portion of the tax revenue from the new industry would be put into a “justice reinvestment fund.”

According to the bill, the fund will be “used for projects to improve quality of life for communities most impacted by the prohibition of marijuana and ‘war on drugs’ era policies.” 

Without the provision that would have given money directly to businesses, the bill now just needs a ⅗ or 60 percent majority to pass in the legislature.

That comes out to 25 votes in the House of Representatives and 13 votes in the Senate. 

There are currently 26 Democrats in the House of Representatives, compared to just 15 Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats hold 14 seats while Republicans hold seven seats.

That means Democrats could pass marijuana legalization without a single Republican vote.

Some speculate that past opposition to cannabis legalization in the General Assembly has come, at least in part, from a desire to avoid forcing Carney into the awkward position of vetoing a bill with such broad public support. 

Carney has refused to say whether he would veto a recreational legalization bill, citing his attempts as lieutenant governor to “get Delawareans to stop smoking.”

If he does nix the measure, Democrats alone have the votes to override it. 

In Delaware, a ⅗ majority is also required to override a governor’s veto.

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